Today the politics of scarcity sees a major change in social policy
The observer of political trends might be curious about the mega-whammy apparently happening from today, the changes to “welfare entitlement” being introduced in the UK. On 1 April a whole raft of changes are occuring, that will probably have a major impact on the bottom percentile of the population, while in the same week the top rate of income tax comes down from 50% to 45%. The contrast is stark, and deliberate.
It might be even more curious a phenomenon when we put this into the context of the renewed focus on the troubles of the Eurozone and the continuing signs of the deep and growing recession in the South as Cyprus joins the “PIGS” countries subject to the dictates of Northern-led austerity. Both in the UK and in southern Europe, the Great Recession drives wedges through our society, the politics of scarcity, alienation and social conflict and the political extremism that, on past form, can ensue. Last time we had massive imposed hardship driven through a particular economic model of austerity and the “balanced budget”, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and democracies collapsed, communism spread amongst the working class, the middle classes fled to fascism and we had the rise of militant nationalism committed to war on internal and external scapegoats of change and massive ethnic cleansing. While Germany historically gets the main blame for that phenomenon, it was actually a European-wide trend to varying degrees, which we can forget at our peril.
We can see in various countries once again the rise of social scapegoats for the failure of an economic system. Today, in the UK, it is the perceived threat from immigrants, who others say are apparently bringing much-needed skills lacking in the indigenous Caucasian white underclass (we don’t have a working class in traditional terms anymore). It makes an interesting study in how the politics of polarisation can play out. Rather than adopt education and training programmes to bring this latter group up to speed with the technological changes since the Thatcherite changes of the 1980’s and the loss of manufacturing to the Far East, attention is diverted on to an internal double enemy, the “undeserving poor” (a term used when the workhouse was introduced nationwide during a previous reaction to an explosion in “welfare” costs in 1834) and the “scrounging” immigrant, which is self-defeating since it limits our external recruitment of talent due to the lack of internal skills. And so the vicious circle continues, much as austerity politics does in general, as each wave brings about a further economc contraction, or at least continued stagnation and frustration.
In the UK, this is the longest recession (a depression really) since the 1920’s. Then, as now, the burden was felt to fall most heavily on the poor, although it should be stressed that today the middle classes have also been massively squeezed, a trend that has been going on for at least a decade and now emphasised by the recession. In the 1930’s, the middle classes moved to the right. Today, they seem to be supporting the clamp-down on “benefits”, as can be seen in the widespread view that recipients of benefits are lazy and undeserving, despite the research evidence that the vast majority are actually in work.
Thus does the politics of scarcity tend to operate as society becomes more divided. It will be interesting, if not possibly scary, to see how this unfolds, since when cornered last time politicians were met with a widespread tax strike, the mass refusal to pay the “poll tax” (the community charge) in 1990, and serious rioting.
What is perhaps particularly remarkable is the almost dogmatic enthusiasm with which government is carrying out these changes, not it should be said in isolation but together with major change in the national health service (the changes come into force today) and in education. A series of reforms are being implemented together and one wonders if that perhaps unwise combination could lead to a serious crisis, particularly since the current leadership has being showing itself so weak and divided. When Mrs Thatcher was decimating British industry through Howe’s hike in interest rates and “monetarism” and she was taking on and defeating the miners, she led a united party with a sound majority in Parliament and a determined focused set of beliefs to sustain her and her followers. She believed she was implementing a revolution that would “roll back the boundaries of the state” and restore British economic, social and political strength. Arguably we are now seeing the death-knell of that philosophy, in the banking crisis and now perhaps in measures being enacted by “Thatcher’s children” that lack widespread consensus in a political base. This time it is being championed by a party that did not win a majority of votes or seats, is in a coalition with many dissenting views, and has shown itself at war with itself and uncertain and erratic in its implementation of policy.
When people sense weakness, they can act violently. Unfortunately, Mr Cameron, unlike Mrs Thatcher, has perhaps not so soundly secured his position. In 1979, Mrs Thatcher increased the pay of the armed services and police. Today he has been cutting them, and some politicians appear to be at odds with the police. We had serious riots two years ago. It will be interesting to see how it goes this time. In the UK, the traditional “working class” was arguably cowed by unemployment in the 1930’s, but we don’t have that this time as employment has held up remarkably well. Last time, there was a notable lack of militancy. However arguably the situation is different, since unionism is emasculated, and perhaps therefore the dispossessed lack an outlet and could thus be more explosive.
These are times when leadership becomes all the more important. Yet this time, the leaders’ authority is in question by their followers and they tend to switch tack and be uncertain and inconsistent. In the background, national confidence and morale is low. Arguably our political system, while appearing strong is actually quite weak as there has been a decline in the legitimacy of our institutions and in political engagement by voters. There is a lack of “ownership” amongst the population at large. Weaken social bonds and you weaken the forces that can sustain the system. In the 1930’s what people craved was strong leadership and the leaders that appeared were ones committed to an overthrown of democracy. Of course then we had economic collapse. Yet today we have the politics of disappointed expectations, of a loss of confidence in growth and affluence. It might not prove to be that different in effect.
PS. When I writing this post, another historical parallel came to mind and I thought I might share it. I know that the idea that history repeats itself is a bit of a myth, but just for fun (or not so fun), just note this one: in 1789 the French state was bankrupt and was forced to call the Estates General for the first time in ages to sanction tax changes. Ideologically the time was right for new institutions to emerge, based on the philosophy of the 18th Century Enlightenment, but it coincided with a major bread crisis in Paris (scarcity), the assault on the Bastille and thus the enrollment of the masses in political change that reverberated across Europe and down the ages ever since. So we can disregard the poor at our peril.